Apr 07 2009
SN: You promoted your book at Comic-Con and the LA Times Festival of Books. How much did it cost? Do you have any advice for authors looking to promote their work at such gatherings?
MH: At the LA Times Festival of Books, a group of many authors pitched in to pay for a booth where we could all hang out and promote our books together. I won’t mention the name of this group, because my experience with them was not good. It turned out that the group’s organizers were overcharging the authors and keeping the profit. So what I paid wasn’t necessarily an accurate number, but it was in the area of $150-$200. An large group of friendly authors could probably do it cheaper.
I have not worked with the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society (glaws.org), but I know they do similar group buy-ins for authors at festivals and conventions. They’re worth a look for L.A.-area writers who want to do an event like this.
As for Comic-Con, that’s kind of a funny story. We promoted there for free, because we did it totally illegally.
A table in the Comic-Con dealers room is prohibitively expensive for most self-published writers, so in 2005 we launched a guerrilla promotion effort there for The Oblivion Society. We hired two models from Craigslist (who were crazy enough to work for Comic-Con admission and a free lunch), fitted them with homemade bat wings, and then hit the convention floor. Several friends were handing out postcards as we photographed convention goers with the girls (which could then be viewed on the website, driving traffic there). All of this is, of course, totally against the rules, so we had to stay one step ahead of the security guards all day long. One member of our party even got caught and thrown out of the convention center.
Today, four years later, I’d imagine Comic-Con security is better trained for this sort of thing, so you probably don’t want to try this stunt again… at Comic-Con. There are plenty of similar events where you might still mount a very successful guerrilla promotion effort. Just don’t get caught!
SN: If an author is considering POD, how much would you recommend budgeting for start-up costs like cover-art and editing? If he plans to seriously push his book, how much would you recommend allocating for promotional expenses?
MH: If you are POD publishing with Lulu (which I recommend), there are no start-up costs to speak of. You’ll need to buy a $100 distribution package, but that’s all Lulu will ask you for before they’ll put you on Amazon.
As far as editing and artwork go, I was very lucky to have good friends who specialize in those fields. Editing isn’t cheap. Editor extraordinaire Will DeRooy (willderooy.com) gave me a discount on his formidable skills, and even then, it was still around $800 for a book the length of The Oblivion Society.
Every piece of artwork I’ve ever needed has come from my best friend, Michael Greenholt (michaelgreenholt.com). His art style meshes very well with my writing style, and we’ve enjoyed a great synergy with our projects.
If you’re looking for cover art, I wouldn’t be shy about finding artists you like online and asking them if they would be interested in doing a commission for you. If you’re willing to give some promotional concessions (for example, Mike Greenholt’s name and website has been on everything upon which his ObSoc art has been reprinted), you might be able to get a discount. Especially if the artist likes your book.
Promotion will be your most expensive budgetary concern, by far. The cost of just the L.A. Times Festival of Books and Comic-Con alone (postcards, magnets, books, travel, etc.) was over $1,000.
The most cost-effective promotions I’ve done for The Oblivion Society are small science-fiction conventions. My friend and fellow author, Christopher Andrews (christopherandrews.com), have gone in together on the cost of a table at several conventions, which usually ends up only costing us about $150 each. Of course, if you can get yourself invited to speak at a convention, they might even give you a signing table for free.
SN: I first came into contact with your work when I saw the trailer for The Oblivion Society. Do you have any advice for authors that want to do book trailers? How much would you recommend budgeting for one?
MH: I think the book trailer is a great way to promote your book, especially if your book feels cinematic in tone. The only downside is that some people (mostly non-readers) will get excited about your book, and then disappointed when they find out it’s not a movie (or in my case, a cartoon).
My book trailer was put together by the folks at Permuted Press using paintings and sketches of the characters that Mike has done for me over the years. I can’t honestly say how much it would cost to make one, as this all happened pretty much outside of my hands.
SN: When you started self-publishing, were there any unexpected setbacks? How did you get around them?
MH: The biggest setback I hit was promotion. Promoting a book is hard, hard work. It’s harder than you imagine it will be. Also, to put it another way, it’s hard.
I don’t have an outgoing personality or a big ego. It’s the hardest thing in the world for me to walk up to a complete stranger and tell him or her how great my book is, but that’s exactly what you have to do. Over and over again.
When I first started, I had this delusion that if the book was good enough, it would speak for itself, and I could stay holed up in my cave and write the next one. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Constant and vigilant promotion is necessary if you want your book to get noticed.
I know people have said it before, but I’ll say it again: In a lot of ways, promoting your book is harder than writing it.
The way to get around this (short of drinking the serum that turns you from Julius Kelp into Buddy Love) is to hire someone else to do your promotion for you. Of course, this gets really expensive really fast, so it’s worth taking a stab at doing it yourself first. Heck, you might even make a new friend.
SN: How important do you think business skills are to the success of a POD author? (Let’s assume that the POD author in question defines success by how many copies he sells).
MH: Business skills are very important, especially if you’re working by yourself. You need to be able to work out a budget for your book and its promotion, and you need to be able to stick to it. You need to be able to keep track of what promotion is being done, who is getting copies for review, and what, if any, effect it is having. You need to keep track of how many books are being sold and make sure that all of your royalties are accounted for. There’s a lot of very non-writerly work to be done.
Business skills also include networking, and without networking with other authors, publishers, and the like, you are dead. It doesn’t matter how great your book is. Sad but true.
SN: In your FAQ, you say that “stores assume that if you’re publishing yourself, that means you suck.” Do you think that readers have the same preconception? If so, how would you recommend overcoming their doubts?
MH: I think everyone has their own level of book snobbery. People who read a lot of a certain genre tend to get voracious and read everything that they can in that genre, regardless of where it comes from. Those people are willing to chew through the terrible books in order to find the gems, and they do. In my experience, these are the people who will be your most vocal proponents (and critics).
Really mainstream readers probably won’t read a POD-published book unless somebody (be it Oprah or their best friend) tells them to. Even then, they still might not. These are the people who only read Harry Potter and Dan Brown, so breaking into their shell is a real battle
for anyone, POD published or not.
There is a book called POD People: Beating the Print-on-Demand Stigma by Jeremy Robinson that is supposed to be full of great information on this topic. I haven’t read it, though. That guy is a POD author, so his book probably sucks…
SN: Why did you decide to self-publish?
To be perfectly honest, it was mostly out of shyness. As I mentioned before, I’m not a great networker or mingler. I’m not a social butterfly and I’m not a salesman, especially when what I’m selling is me.
So after I had finished my book and it was ready to be published, I had two choices: try to sell myself to an agent, who would then help me sell myself to a publisher, and then try to sell myself to the public, or just publish the book myself, cut out two levels of exhausting social interaction, and go straight to awkwardly charming the public.
SN: How did you get the idea to write a comedic story about a nuclear apocalypse?
The truth is, I didn’t. Much like the nuclear war in The Oblivion Society, it was an accident.
In the beginning, the story was meant to be a screwball sci-fi comedy where, in the aftermath of a devastating nuclear war, three skateboard punks inadvertently become the rulers of Earth. They then sell it off to a race of aliens looking for “a fixer upper” planet.
As I wrote the first draft, the arrival of the aliens kept getting pushed deeper and deeper into the book as I realized that it wasn’t as interesting as the story of the skate punks.
Eventually I admitted to myself what story I was really writing and started again, getting rid of all of the alien elements. And the skateboard elements, for that matter. I don’t know anything about skateboards.
SN: After you completed the first draft of your final chapter, how long did you spend editing and rewriting before you decided that it was ready to publish?
It was still a month or two. Even though I try to work with a fairly rigid outline, ideas come along as you’re writing that are too good to ignore just because they don’t fit in. My process is to write the whole novel, putting in stuff that doesn’t make sense as I go, and then when I hit the end, go back and rewrite the beginning until it does make sense. I completely threw away the first two chapters and wrote them again after I knew how the book ended.
SN: How long had you been selling The Oblivion Society before Permuted Press contacted you about the paperback rights? Around how many copies had you sold?
It was about a year and a half between the releases of the first (POD) and second (Permuted Press) editions. I think I sold somewhere around 300 copies in that time. That doesn’t sound like much, but I wasn’t even getting reviews at that time. Pretty much every copy sold was through direct one-on-one promotion with real people. Like I said, it’s exhausting.
SN: When Permuted Press published ObSoc, did they do any editing beforehand?
Actually, quite the opposite. Permuted Press liked the book and wanted to reprint it as-is. I was the one who had to talk them into letting me revise it for the second edition. After a year of reader feedback, I had formed a pretty good picture of what needed fixing, and I fixed it.
We also gave it some great new cover art, as the old cover art never conveyed the message it was supposed to. (Vivian was supposed to look mildly annoyed at the mushroom cloud, like she was saying, “I am NOT cleaning that up.” But it always read that she was sobbing, which
isn’t all that funny.
[Editor's Note: When we reviewed the book trailer for Oblivion Society, one of the things we noted was that "the only clear emotional image in the trailer is her sobbing on the cover as mushroom clouds loom in the background"
SN: If you were writing and self-publishing The Oblivion Society all over again, what (if anything) would you have done differently?
I would have published it as a straight POD book and not meddled with "self publishing." Most people don't know that there is a difference, but with POD, books are produced one at a time as they are ordered, and with self-publishing, a "small" quantity of books is printed all at one time.
I say "small" with quotes, because the smallest quantity a non-POD printer is going to want to deal with is probably around 500. That ends up being a big up-front cost and a lot of space in your garage that you have to slowly reclaim through signings and personal appearances. Even then, many of the people you'll meet at those events will have their own POD published copies that they bought on the Internet.
One of the stipulations of the Permuted Press contract for the second edition was that the first edition had to be retired from stores. To this day, I still have about 150 first editions in my garage that I don't know what to do with. If only schools were more open to the idea of taking donations of books featuring the F word and blow job jokes...
I’d like to thank Holliequ, Tom, R.B., and Whovian for their help on this interview. Thanks, guys!